The air was chill in Skyhaven, not so cold as it had been on the ground of Frigidia, but still cold enough that Sean could see his breath turn to vapor. The green-haired prince glanced at his companions. Kara felt it too; the princess of Dahlia held her cloth-of-laconia robe tightly about her, though she kept her face set and made no complaint. That was her way. Sometimes, Sean felt that the girl was as cold inside as the frozen lakes he could see from the flying city's observation decks. Blond-haired Laya had no such restraint; she had her cloak wrapped tightly around herself and shivered. The cyborgs, Wren and Mieu, ignored the cold completely. On the armored Wren this didn't seem particularly incongruous, but for Mieu, who wore only gloves, boots, and a skimpy red unitard that matched her hair, it was positively uncanny.
Sean remembered a story told to him by his grandfather, Rhys, about how a man Rhys had met once thought Mieu was a "Layan witch" because she did not blink. Ironically, Rhys had gone on to marry a Layan, and as Sean could testify, they did in fact blink, succumb to the cold, and were just as human as any Orakian. Mieu wasn't human at all, but a machine, and yet Sean couldn't help but think of her as a friend.
He came, he reflected, from a strange family with strange destinies, and his was the strangest of them all.
They ascended the stairs to where the bearded old men of the Council of Skyhaven awaited. One by one they drew their weapons. First Sean, with the gleaming black sword once wielded by his ancestor, Orakio himself, its basket hilt designed for an ancient style of swordsmanship unlike modern two-handed techniques. Then came Mieu, extending and locking into position the claw once wielded by Orakio's companion, her fellow Mieu-type, Miun. Kara drew forth the keen-edged slicer her father, Lune, had wielded in the Devastation War a thousand years ago. Wren unholstered Siren's Shot, a gun which strangely required neither an ammunition clip or to be connected to his internal power supply in order to fire. Lastly, Laya drew the bow that her elder sister of the same name had entrusted to her before going off to face Dark Force alongside Orakio.
The same Dark Force that Sean had inadvertently freed.
"We have them," Sean said simply. "Orakio's Sword, Miun's Claw, Lune's Slicer, Siren's Shot, and Laya's Bow--all five of the ancient weapons. We also have the word of power from the Sages: Nei."
The first of the Councilors, his eyes brilliant blue with laugh lines around his face, added to those lines with an exclamation of glee.
"Nei! Of course that would be the word of power!"
"Is there something funny about that?" Sean asked. Laughter was not the response he had expected.
"Nei," replied the dark-eyed Second Councilor, "literally means 'power' in the ancient language spoken by the weapons' creator."
"I do not have information concerning such a language in my data files," Wren stated.
"Nor would you," said the First Councilor. "This tongue died out a millennium or more before you were created. It has endured only among wizards and Espers."
"Espers?" Sean asked.
The Third Councilor, his eyes green as the Dragon Tear, nodded gravely.
"It is the ancient term for your people, Prince of Azura, those you call 'Layans.' As Wren was the product of their Orakian enemies, he would not possess this knowledge."
"We don't have time for this," Kara snapped. "When Sean pulled Orakio's Sword out of that sigil in the Sunken Palace, this...demon appeared. It called itself Dark Force. You can debate linguistics after you tell us how to kill it!"
The Fourth Councilor gazed at her with smoke-gray eyes that were rheumy with age.
"We felt it, child. Our whole world shook with its release." A tremor ran through him, and there were hints of a deep horror in his clouded eyes.
Sean understood. In that one terrible moment when the demon's form had loomed over him, he had felt himself all but smothered in pure evil, a hatred of all that lives. For lack of a better metaphor, Dark Force was destruction incarnate, pain and suffering and fathomless rage somehow made flesh. Why it had spared them in that instant, he had no idea.
"Do not fear," said the dark-eyed Councilor. "All is as it was intended to be."
Sean stared at him in disbelief.
"What? Are you telling me that you knew this was going to happen? That we were going to turn that thing loose on the Alisa III?" His hands tightened on the hilt of Orakio's Sword; for one moment he felt as if he was going to cut down the old men where they stood.
"Please, young prince, let us explain!" urged the First Councilor, holding up his hands in a gesture of supplication. "There was no malign intent in what we did."
"No malign intent? That monstrosity is 'malign intent'!"
"This was the only way to ensure that the evil could be defeated fully! Surely you realize that even before Dark Force was unleashed there was still horror and destruction loose in our world. That was why you came to us in the first place."
He was right about that, at least. Sean's homeland, the artificial satellite Azura, had been destroyed, his parents and most of his people killed long before Dark Force's seal had been broken. Slowly, he lowered his blade.
"This is going to have to be one of the all-time great explanations."
The First Councilor smiled faintly at that, his blue eyes twinkling.
He turned to the Third Councilor.
"It would be best to begin by explaining what we know of the legendary weapons."
"I believe you are correct."
A chill wind swept through the floating city, tugging at Sean's cape and his long green ponytail.
"These legendary weapons are far older than the heroes who bore them and gave them their names," the Third Councilor stated. "They were forged millennia ago by a wizard named Avran Dai. He alloyed pure laconia with certain other substances, giving them their obsidian color, and while each weapon is enchanted to perform superbly in battle, there is a deeper mysticism woven into the Dai Quintad."
Kara scuffed her boot impatiently on the flagstones. She was a woman of action, deeply suspicious that behind the honeyed words of the smooth-tongued were lies and deceptions. There had been little love in her life, and words of kindness had usually been lies. Sean pitied her; his own parents were gone, but at least he had loving memories of them to keep.
"This spell," continued the green-eyed old man, "or as you would call it, this technique, was designed to seal away the demon, your Dark Force. The five weapons are the keys to this seal. When Orakio and Laya fought Dark Force a thousand years ago, they had with them only Miun's Claw and Orakio's Sword. Lune's Slicer and Siren's Shot were imprisoned on Dahlia and Azura with their wielders, while Laya's Bow..."
"She entrusted it to me," Laya said softly. The ruby set in her forehead glittered in Frigidia's cold light.
"The result of this was an imperfect seal," stated the Fourth Councilor. "Dark Force's physical body was bound, but its evil power remained free to be used by its minions!"
The Fifth Councilor, heretofore silent, raised his head, his eyes sightless and white.
"Orakio and Laya used only two of the five, and the results have come to rest in the present. Dark Force's minions have acted in our world. You have seen some of them, as well as the monsters and robots--what you would call cyborgs--that they have created." His voice was as cold as the wind, a frozen chill of portent brushing against Sean's spirit.
"They've manipulated everything? Is that what you're saying?" he asked belligerently.
"Who can say?" the First Councilor said, shrugging. "Evil is insidious, and we can only see so much from our lofty perch. Yet, one thousand years after Orakio and Laya sent them away, Azura and Dahlia drew closer to the Alisa III. Lune and Siren were freed to wage war on the people, and the passages between the worlds were opened, so that by the time the two ancient generals learned the error of their ways, the spawn of evil could spread again. How much of this was planned and how much due to a capricious fate we may never know."
"What we do know is that for the first time in a thousand years the five weapons of Avran Dai have been gathered, and this time there are champions who are ready and willing to use them for their intended purpose."
Champions? Sean didn't feel like a champion. He was a young man whose family, whose home had been destroyed by a monster and who wanted nothing more than revenge. Yet...wasn't he the last surviving descendant of Orakio, a prince of Layans and Orakians alike? And his companions--Orakio's elite combat cyborgs, the daughter of Laya's greatest general, Laya's own sister--weren't these the standard bearers of that ancient age when Dark Force had been fought, and however temporarily, beaten?
Perhaps they were champions after all. None, at the least, would shirk the task before them.
"With the five weapons together," said the Third Councilor, "it is our hope that Dark Force can be sealed for once and for all, not just its body but also its will and power."
"Your hope?" Kara pounced on the word. "What do you mean, your hope?"
The First Councilor looked at her with sad eyes.
"No one truly knows if these weapons will be enough. The legends do not say if they were ever used on ancient Palm. Dark Force may have grown stronger with the years."
"Or," the Fourth Councilor said, trembling slightly, "you may not be strong enough to defeat the demon. Maybe no one is!"
"No," Sean said flatly. "We're not going to fail. We have a past to avenge and a future to protect." He glanced at the others, saw the agreement in their faces. "Now, teach us how to use these weapons."
The Second Councilor nodded.
"Once the Dai Quintet have been enhanced, you must take the weapons of power, the Nei weapons if you will, and defeat Dark Force in combat. Once it has been beaten, unable to defend itself momentarily, any of the Espers--Layans--among you can enact the chant of sealing, which we will teach you before you leave Skyhaven."
"As you have obtained the word of power," added the emerald-eyed Councilor, "we can now perform the ritual spell to invoke the true strength of the ancient weapons. Sean Sa Riik, are you and your companions ready to accept this power and this burden?"
He didn't need to consult the others; he knew their answers. Mieu and Wren, entrusted by Orakio to fight this battle if his efforts a thousand years ago had failed. Kara, whose life had been shaped by blood and pain, rage and loss, all stemming from the seeds planted a thousand years ago by Dark Force. Laya, to whom the elder Laya had entrusted her hope for the future.
"We are," Sean said. "For a tomorrow free from the duties of the past."
"Then let it be done."
The five old men strode forward, standing in a semicircle on the dais, facing the heroes. They had seemed weak and frail to Sean, once. Not so any more. The Councilors veritably shone with power, the might of Skyhaven which they had saved for this moment.
Their voices rose in harmony, and with the chant came an energy, a presence that seemed to gather in the air around them. The city was alive with it; the power burned along Sean's nerves, throbbed in the pulsing of his blood.
He didn't know the words of the chant, or what they meant, but there was one that came again and again, Nei...Nei...Nei. With each repetition, the force in the air grew stronger, more intense, and Orakio's Sword seemed to pulse in his hands.
Then the chant reached a thunderous crescendo, and the power seemed to flow from the air and into Sean. He gasped in pain, hearing the others cry out as well, only Wren remaining silent, accepting his burden, as always, without complaint.
The power rushed through Sean and into the drawn sword. For a split second the legendary blade burned with an aura of silver-blue radiance, and then it faded, leaving glittering motes of silver in the black blade like stars in the night sky. The Nei sword gleamed darkly, a shining obsidian omen of death for the monster.
In the depths of his soul, Sean could hear, from far away, a scream of rage, rage laced with fear.
The prince of lost Azura smiled faintly.
It was time to end this, once and forever.